Suffering for one’s art is not a new phenomenon. All throughout history artists have been revered for their dedication to the craft, their ability to work night and day in poor conditions to create their masterpieces and build an enduring legacy. This image of the tortured artist is so strong and so pervasive because it’s very difficult to disprove.
This notion of being willing to go that one step further no matter the cost touches on some inner belief that it is necessary to suffer to earn success, and in turn that sheer strength of will is the most important part of becoming a successful artist. Sprinkle in those niggling thoughts and fears every artist has, an oversaturated market, oppressive working hours and financial burdens, and you have today’s generation of tortured artists.
When I use the term ‘artist’, I use it liberally. The problem I want to talk about spans different fields, from the more traditional through to new media disciplines. An almost impenetrable creative industry means that many artists have to hold other jobs whilst pursuing work in their creative field. Even those with steady jobs in the industry probably work on personal projects outside of work – it’s not every artist’s dream to work on someone else’s, after all – but for many the solution is the ‘survival job’. These are jobs with a steady income that you can fit around your creative work; the trouble is that the need for flexibility means these are often part-time and low-paid.
Shannon Hegarty, a Northern Irish actress who moved to Liverpool to study, has to work a part-time job to sustain herself, and she sums up the problem perfectly: “I find it really difficult to devote almost any time to my acting, as I have to work a lot just to pay the bills.”
“They call your job your ‘survival job’ but when it demands so much of you and you rely on it so much just to survive, it can take you away from what you love and want to do with your life.”
Shannon’s schedule focuses so much on work that she, like so many others whose creative work starts away from their job, feels bad about relaxing after work: “I feel I should be devoting that time to my acting career, but when your shifts are long and tiring it’s hard to get out of the cycle of wake-up/work/eat/sleep.” Working so much can have dangerous repercussions on physical, emotional and mental health, and burnout is a known issue among many creatives.
It’s clear the current regime is in desperate need of reinvention – but how?
It’s difficult to shake the societal and self-imposed pressures that demand artists work harder, and when you aren’t fulfilled creatively by your job there’s a very real danger of your life outside of it being taken over entirely by creative pursuits.
For some, the answer could be in a reinvented and revitalised schedule. By keeping a set schedule, you can plan out and prioritise not only your work but your relaxation time. Knowing exactly how much time you’re going to be able to dedicate to something could increase productivity and, if you’re someone who works to deadlines, could help you stay on top of work. It could also help you feel that relaxation periods are earned and help get rid of all of that pesky guilt over procrastination.
But this won’t solve the problem for everyone. It’s easy to tell artists not to work so hard, but what else can they do when the industry demands it? Jobs are so competitive that once you get one there’s a very real danger that if you aren’t willing to work a hundred hours a week then your employer can replace you without suffering any loss. Professional artists end up trapped, crushed beneath expectations and threatened with unemployment if they don’t work hard enough, and sometimes all that hard work isn’t even enough to save them. Just this month Telltale Games abruptly fired two hundred employees without severance after those very same employees worked insane hours during ‘crunch time’ – an infamous process in the animation and video games industry – to finish projects for the company.
To really help artists, there needs to be a total overhaul and reinvention of the industry. In the meantime, all artists can do is work hard and be good to themselves. The work might not ever stop, so remember to give yourself time to relax. The industry certainly won’t.